August 31, 2012 § 1 Comment
You find yourself in the wee hours of the morning, and after a long day of classes and work, you’d like nothing more than to sink into bed and into the reprieve of sleep. Only one problem: you still have to study for a big Spanish test, meaning you’re faced with a depressing choice… or are you?
The New York Times recently reported on a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience that suggests people have the capacity to learn while asleep. Specifically, the inquiry explored associations between sounds and scents. Study participants were subjected to various smells via breathing masks as they slept, and each smell was accompanied by a unique tone. They inhaled deeply when exposed to pleasant odors and more shallowly in the presence of disagreeable odors. What was compelling, however, was the fact that the sleeping subjects eventually displayed these breathing patterns in response to the tones alone; furthermore, the tones continued to produce altered breathing when the subjects were awake, despite their having no recollection of any sounds or smells while sleeping.
Scientists have known for some time that the brain carries out amazing functions when we sleep, reviewing, processing, and organizing information. Yet this study has made somewhat of a splash because, in the words of its lead author, “The common knowledge is that you cannot learn new information while you’re asleep.” As ardently as, say, college students wish they could study for that big Spanish test by listening to a language program as they slumber, research has shown such efforts to be utterly unfruitful. So while the Nature Neuroscience study deals only with the senses of hearing and smell, and not higher intellectual subject matter, it is still remarkable in showing that we can learn new things as we sleep.
Behavioral conditioning is widely known, but the concept of achieving this process during sleep opens up an array of interesting possibilities in the realm of science fiction literature. Individuals who enroll in the U.S. military’s basic training spend long days preparing their minds and bodies for the rigors of combat, often from sunup to sundown — but what if the training didn’t end there? Instead, soldiers might be fine-tuned as they slept, conditioned to breathe deeply even in the chaos of machine-gun fire.
Even if the implications of the study turn out to be limited to sounds and smells — though they very well may extend further — an SF author would have the freedom to explore other intriguing ideas. Imagine if the aforementioned soldiers could visually rehearse the assembly and dismantling of weapons just by listening to the noises of the process as they slept. Or imagine if an authoritarian regime secretly conditioned its citizens as they slept so that they could be incapacitated at a second’s notice if they ever attempted an overthrow.
Finally, imagine if it were, in fact, possible to learn topics such as Spanish, math, history, and physics while asleep. Humans could attain unprecedented levels of knowledge, likely accelerating the development of civilization, and certainly changing human interaction in everything from politics to business to everyday conversation.
Oh, and you could sleep and get an A on that Spanish test, too.